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So, I was interested in reading Jeremiah 10:1-5 as it referred to Christmas trees. I found the comparison is very striking in the King James Version. As I was looking into this, however, I noticed that some other bible translations compared the tree to a scarecrows in a cucumber field, which I found very odd.

When and why was this changed?

My other question is in regards to the first sentence of Jer 10:5. I get the first part, "They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not:", but I don't understand the second part "they must needs be born because they cannot go". What does this mean and how does it relate to a palm tree?

  • 1
    This question may be better suited for BiblicalHermeneutics.SE. They tend to answer questions about readings and translations very well. – Andrew Oct 4 '15 at 16:53
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    It wasn't "changed" - the King James translation is not the original language. There are numerous reasons why updated translations use different words in some places - the English language has changed in the last 400 years; we have more numerous and better quality original language manuscripts; our understanding of Greek and Hebrew have improved; etc. – ThaddeusB Oct 4 '15 at 17:18
  • "...they must needs be born because they cannot go..." - they must be "born" (borne) as in carried, because they cannot move on their own. They were worshipping the trees as idols, but the prophet remarks how they had to carry the very thing they were worshipping. Not much a god, now, was it? – user900 Oct 4 '15 at 19:44
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    While I agree that it would be on topic at BH, I don’t think this one is unreasonable here. It’s not about Truth in exegesis so much as it is about the history of translation within the Christian tradition. – Susan Oct 4 '15 at 22:29
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    Can you please explain how Jeremiah 10 refers to Christmas trees? – curiousdannii Oct 6 '15 at 8:51
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I generally agree with another answer and comments that “modern translations are better”, but I will elaborate a bit on how the variant translations came about. The Hebrew of interest:

כְּתֹ֨מֶר מִקְשָׁ֥ה הֵ֙מָּה֙
kətōmer miqšâ hēmmâ
They [the idols] are like a tōmer of a miqšâ

Both tōmer and miqšâ are somewhat obscure. Tōmer appears only here in the OT. The KJV assumed an emendation to tāmār = palm tree (occurs 12 times in the OT), supported by the Vulgate: palmae. The Greek Septuagint doesn’t include this statement at all, so it’s not helpful. However, it is a Greek text that pushed translators in the direction of “scarecrow”. From the Epistle of Jeremiah 69(70):1

Ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν σικυηράτῳ προβασκάνιον οὐδὲν φυλάσσον, οὕτως οἱ θεοὶ αὐτῶν εἰσιν ξύλινοι καὶ περίχρυσοι καὶ περιάργυροι.
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed that guards nothing, so are their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver.

Προβασκάνιον (probaskanion) is a reasonably well-attested word for "scarecrow". This secures the meaning of tōmer in Jer 10:5 because it coheres with the context: the other term there, miqšâ, means cucumber field.2

If the object stands in a cucumber field, it has to be a scarecrow.3

Consistent with the sense of the verse, Lundbom goes on to cite evidence from classical writers about statues of gods being used as scarecrows.

As to your second question, the KJV actually says,

they must needs be borne4 because they can not go

There’s no reason to work with the meaning “palm tree” at this point, but whether it’s a palm tree or a scarecrow, the point is that they are inanimate and therefore lame; they must be carried (“borne”).

Summary
The KJV translators were uncertain the meaning of tōmer in the Masoretic text, so they accepted an emendation of the vocalization toward the reading of the Vulgate, arriving at "palm tree". In light of external evidence, translators now nearly universally accept that the meaning is "scarecrow".


1. Deuterocanonical for Roman Catholics and Orthodox; Apocryphal for Protestants. The earliest manuscripts, from Qumran, and are in Greek. The letter is a harangue against idols that is loosely based on the book of (proto)canonical Jeremiah.

2. See also Isaiah 1:8, where the KJV agrees. The Greek is σικυήρατον in both Is 1:8 (LXX) and Ep Jer 70(69), from σίκυς (sikus) = cucumber.

3. Jack R. Lundbom, Jeremiah 1-20. (The Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 586.

4. Not born as in the question. To be borne is the passive form of a somewhat archaic use of the verb “to bear” meaning “to support the weight of”. The Hebrew term is often glossed “to be carried”.

  • Much better answer than mine. – DJClayworth Oct 5 '15 at 13:15
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The text has not been changed. The more modern versions are better translations.

The King James version was translated by clever people according to the best knowledge they had at the time. However in the 350 years since then we have learned a lot about the original Hebrew languages and are able to make better translations of the original.

The translators of the KJV believed that the word meant "palm trees". We now believe, in the light of extra evidence, that it means "scarecrows".

In case this concerns you, you should note that the effect on theology of this difference is pretty much zero. Christianity does not consider translations to be infallible, so it is always possible that new evidence may bring a clearer understanding to scripture.

  • "Christianity does not consider translations to be infallible." There are a handful of KJV-onlyists that actually hold this position. – Nathan Osman Aug 31 '16 at 22:53
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Jeremiah 10:5 KJB - “THEY ARE UPRIGHT AS THE PALM TREE”

ESV - “THEIR IDOLS ARE LIKE SCARECROWS IN A CUCUMBER FIELD.”

NIV 1978, 1984 editions - "Like A SCARECROW IN A MELON PATCH, their idols cannot speak"

NIV 2011 edition - "Like A SCARECROW IN A CUCUMBER PATCH, their idols cannot speak"

Jeremiah 10 is speaking about the idols of the heathen and tells the children of Israel not to be like them.

“2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

5 THEY ARE UPRIGHT AS THE PALM TREE, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.”

The Hebrew word here for “PALM TREE” is # 8560 tohmer, and is only used twice in the O.T. The other instance is in Judges 4:5 where we are told about the prophetess Deborah “And she dwelt under the PALM TREE”. Even versions like the ESV, NIV, NASB etc. translate the word as “palm tree” in that place.

The Catholic Connection

However in this place the ESV, NIV, NASB, NET, Holman, and the modern Catholic versions like the St. Joseph NAB 1970 and the New Jerusalem bible 1985 read - “They are like SCARECROWS IN A CUCUMBER PATCH.” - or “Scarecrows in a melon patch.”

Likewise, the Jehovah Witness New World Translation reads: "They are like A SCARECROW OF A CUCUMBER FIELD, and cannot speak."

However the previous Douay-Rheims 1610 and Douay 1950 both read “palm tree” and now the 2009 Catholic Public Domain Version has gone back to - “They have been fabricated in the likeness of A PALM TREE”

Agreeing with the King James Bible’s “they are upright as THE PALM TREE” are Wycliffe 1395, Coverdale 1535, the Great Bible 1540, Matthew’s Bible 1549 - “It standeth as styfe as the PALMTREE”, the Bishop’s Bible 1568 - “It standeth as stiffe as the Palme tree”, the Geneva Bible 1599 - “The idols stand up as the PALM TREE”, Lamsa’s translation of the Syriac Peshitta - “They are set upright as PALM TREES”, Julia Smith Translation 1855, Noyes Translation 1869, the Revised Version 1881 - “They are like a PALM TREE,” Darby 1890, Young’s 1898 - “As A PALM they are stiff”, the ASV 1901 - “They are like a PALM-TREE”, Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible 1902, The Word of Yah 1993, God's First Truth 1999, The Judaica Press Tanach 2004, the Context Group Version 2007, the Orthodox Jewish Bible 2011 - “They [the idols] are upright as the tomer (palm tree]”, the KJV 21st Century 1994, the Third Millenium Bible 1998, Green's Literal 2005, Bond Slave Version 2008, the Concordant Literal Version, the 2012 Natural Israelite Bible - “They are upright, like A PALM TREE”, the Hebraic Transliteration Scripture 2010, the Holy Scriptures VW Edition 2010, the New European Version 2010, the Online Interlinear 2010 (André de Mol), the Jubilee Bible 2010, the Biblos Interlinear Bible 2011 - "They are UPRIGHT AS THE PALM TREE", The Work of God's Children Illustrated Bible 2011, the World English Bible 2012, .

Foreign language Bibles that follow the Hebrew text and also read “PALM TREE” are the Spanish Sagradas Escrituras 1569, Cipriano de Valera 1602, the Reina Valera 1909-1995 and Reina Valera Gómez 2004 - “Erguidos están como PALMERA”, the Portuguese Almeida Corrigida E Fiel 1681 and A Biblia Sagrada em Portugués - “Säo como a PALMEIRA”, the Tagalog Ang Dating Biblia - “Sila'y gaya ng puno ng PALMA”, the Italian Diodati 1649 and La Nuova Diodati 1991 - “Son tratti diritti, a guisa di PALMA”, the Albanian bible - “Idhujt qëndrojnë drejt si një palmë”, the Lithuanian Bible - “Jie yra tiesūs kaip palmė”

AND The Modern Greek Bible - Ειναι ορθια ως φοινιξ, αλλα δεν λαλουσιν· = "They are straight as THE PALM TREE (φοινιξ) , but they do not speak."

And the Hebrew Rashi Complete Tanach 2004 - “Like a PALM TREE” and the Hebrew Interlinear Old Testament - “כתמר as the palm tree, מקשׁה upright המה They”

Where does this weird change from “a palm tree” to “a scarecrow in a cucumber patch” come from? Not the so called Greek LXX (It is really messed up in this section - it omits verses 6, 7, 8 and 10, and has two verse fives, neither one of which reads like the Hebrew or these modern Vatican Versions) nor the Syriac Peshitta, which reads just like the KJB has it - “They are set up straight as PALM TREES, but they do not speak.”

The Pulpit Commentary tells us - “They are upright as the palm tree; rather, they are like a pillar (i.e. a scarecrow) in a field of cucumbers. This is the interpretation given to our passage in Ver. 70 of the apocryphal Epistle of Jeremiah (written in the Maccabean period, evidently with reference to our prophecy), and is much more striking than the rival translation, "like a palm tree”.

So, in other words, it has nothing to do with the Hebrew text, which reads “palm tree” but with some APOCRYPHAL book that is not even in the Bible, and it is “an interpretaion” they like it because “it is much more striking” than that dull old “palm tree”. Folks, this is how modern scholarship works.

John Gill comments: “They are upright as the palm tree, Being nailed to a post, or fastened to a pillar, or set upon a pedestal, and so stand erect without bending any way; and are like a palm tree, which is noted for its uprightness.”

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown comment: -“5. upright—or, "They are of turned work, resembling a palm tree" [Maurer]. The point of comparison between the idol and the palm is in the pillar-like uprightness of the latter”

John Calvin translated it into Latin as “palm tree” - “Sicuti palma aequalis” and then comments: “They are indeed erect as the palm-trees; and thus there appears in them something remarkable: but they speak not.”

Adam Clarke Commentary - “They are upright as the palm tree - As straight and as stiff as the trees out of which they are hewn.”

Matthew Poole’s Commentary - “They are upright as the palm tree; the nature of which is to grow upright and tall, without any branchings, till it comes to the top, thereby possibly representing majesty.”

Some Other Weird Versions (so you can get a better sense of the meaning, don't ya know ;-)

The Ancient Roots Translinear bible 2008 says: "HAMMERED TO A DATE-PALM, it speaks nothing"

Interlinear Hebrew Scriptures 2012 (Mebust) - "LIKE A ROUNDED POST, THEY ARE, and they cannot speak"

The King James Bible is right, as always.

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    I'd be careful of calling the Letter of Jeremiah "some APOCRYPHAL book that is not even in the Bible". As the first chapter of the book of the prophet Baruch, this letter is in the Biblical canon of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox - that's 75% of Christianity. – Matt Gutting Oct 3 '17 at 15:02
  • Please stop using All Capital letters. On the internet, that comes across as shouting. This is not a chat room, nor a discussion forum. – KorvinStarmast Oct 4 '17 at 16:51

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